A Proposal That Puts Democracy on Its Deathbed

Paula R. Newberg is author of "Judging the State," a study of constitutional politics in Pakistan. She was recently in Islamabad

During Gen. Mohammed Zia ul- Haq's decade-long martial law in the 1980s, Pakistan's banned politicians occasionally would congregate to lament the excesses of military rule. As they listed each abuse, the audience would chant, "Shame! Shame!" Then everyone would return to jail.

When the army went back to its barracks, Pakistanis hoped that constitutional rule was back and the days of shame were over. They were wrong.

Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif summoned Parliament, for the first time in months, to propose a constitutional amendment. He seeks to override parliamentary prerogative by administrative fiat, dilute the bicameral system, evade the fragile compact among provinces and consolidate executive functions in ways that can abrogate the constitution.

The shame is that these measures are advanced in the name of Islam.

Once again, political opportunism is masquerading as religion. For 51 years, Pakistan's governments have undertaken many self-defeating and contradictory actions, and called them all Islamic. Zia's reached furthest: By placing the constitution "in abeyance" and replacing it with regulations and ordinances, he set the stage for a wholesale revision of Pakistan's governance. When his rule weakened, he extended his tenure by equating it with his Islamic program. What he called Islamization, others called dictatorship.

Sharif is now trying the same ploy. He, too, acts out of weakness. His measures can destroy what's left of democracy in Pakistan.

Politicizing religion by challenging the constitution is no way to save democracy, particularly in a state that isn't working well. Pakistan's failures, old and new, flow from its leaders' betrayal of democratic ideals. Its political elites reinforce their hold rather than share power. Many virtually own their districts and refuse any initiatives to redistribute wealth, still among the most concentrated in the world. Military spending overshadows civilian needs. While awaiting word on an infusion of funds from the International Monetary Fund, the army's chief of staff was in Ukraine negotiating new military purchases. Political leaders allow the military to shadow their authority, conveniently disavowing responsibility for even tentative political reform.

These failures of Pakistan's democracy are turning into the failure of its state. Pakistan labors under extraordinary liabilities. Its economy is submerged under mountains of debt, and after its nuclear tests in May, international displeasure turned into economic isolation. Its foreign-policy forays have backfired. In August, U.S. cruise missiles hit not only Afghans but Pakistanis training for jihad in Kashmir, giving lie to strenuous Pakistani claims that they are only distant advisors to Afghanistan's Taliban and provide only moral support to Kashmir's insurgents. India gleefully notes the ironies--training camps, it says, mean interference in its domestic domain in Kashmir--and Afghanistan's Northern Alliance complained to the United Nations that Taliban victories came at foreign, not local, hands.

Why is Sharif trying to accrue more power now? Timing provides one hint. His proposal aired on national television exactly one week after the cruise-missile attack, a week in which Pakistan didn't know whether to object to a violation of Afghanistan's sovereignty, Pakistani airspace, the killing of its own citizens or its own ignorance.

It came 10 days after the Americans evacuated their embassy, on the 10th anniversary of the death of Zia, Sharif's benefactor and the man who invented the Taliban's progenitors and made constitutional abrogation into an art. The proposal came just three days after talks with the United States about regional politics, bailouts for a failing economy and Pakistan's nuclear future, issues on which Pakistan may be forced to compromise with the world to avoid the failure of its state.

Domestic politics fare no better. Pakistanis evince ambivalence about political leaders who appease the loudest rather than satisfy the neediest and--like Sharif and his opponent, Benazir Bhutto--choreograph alliances with militants to provide the pretense of pluralism. Prevailing street sentiment leans toward fear: What would default mean for the average citizen? Many Pakistanis worry that militarization and nuclearization outweigh their advertised benefits; security, after all, must be felt, not just announced. Public reaction to the U.S. missile attack on Afghanistan was muted. The government decried state-sponsored terrorism, but most Pakistanis were far more aware of local violence and terrorism.

Hence: Sharif's conundrum. Just when he thinks that control is needed to solve the country's woes, control evades his grasp. With his proposed amendment, he can ban political parties, outlaw religious sects, abolish fundamental rights and give bureaucrats the means to violate parliament's wishes. Under the guise of "promoting the good and rejecting the bad" (the same Koranic injunction that guides the Taliban's religious police), he could, literally, do whatever he wishes.

Sharif's minions contend that Pakistan is a moderate Islamic state and that his constitutional gambit will discipline the economy and reform the judiciary. Laudable goals, but for the fact that political leaders have looted the exchequer, robbed the judiciary of its stature and given extremism a home.

Public relations cannot override legal precedent. The only constitutional amendment that has ever been removed was one that limited the prime minister's powers, a move applauded last year as erasing the Zia era's worst excesses.

Chagrin now replaces celebration. Sharif has outlawed floor crossing in parliament, so party members cannot violate discipline without censure. If his majority party votes against this amendment, it will push the entire political system into courts that have proved themselves unequal to such tasks.

What could follow cannot hearten democrats. Like earlier so-called Islamic laws enacted under Zia and Sharif, this one can easily confuse state institutions, interfere with the free market and stop Pakistanis from seizing control over their lives. Sharif may not intend to be an autocrat, but he has laid the constitutional basis for autocracy to flourish.

Sharif's amendment is not about Islam but about power. Pakistanis have not sought a new moral compass, but demand political direction from those entrusted to lead them. This task will be impossible to accomplish from within until outside interlocutors and marketeers stop mixing their messages. Donor governments decry Pakistan's policies but succor its leaders and political pretenders, excoriate corruption but profit from it, and demand democracy while living comfortably with serviceable authoritarianism.

Despair, however, offers a hint of opportunity. Rather than plug one hole in a shaky dike, this is the moment to stem the flood: Think not about the next trench of IMF funds, but about the structure on which the state is built. For starters, make clear that violating the constitution is no way to run a market or solve people's problems.

Otherwise, democracy's days in Pakistan are numbered. That would be a crying shame.

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